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Western states want a piece of Abe Lincoln, too

As the nation prepares to mark the Feb. 12 bicentennial of Lincoln's birth, Western states that didn't exist until after Lincoln's 1865 assassination are grabbing a piece of the famous birthday.
Lincoln And The West
David Leroy, chairman of the Idaho Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, stands next to a statue of Abraham Lincoln in Boise, Idaho. This statue will be erected and unveiled for the Feb. 12 bicentennial of Lincoln's birth.Matt Cilley / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

When you think of Abraham Lincoln, you think of ... Idaho?

As the nation prepares to commemorate the Feb. 12 bicentennial of Lincoln's birth, Western states that didn't exist until after Lincoln's 1865 assassination, much less his 1809 birth near Hodgenville, Ky., are grabbing a piece of the famous birthday.

Problem is, the connection between the architect of the Emancipation Proclamation and the nation's post-Civil War states is sometimes thin. In Idaho, for example, officials claim their state is closer to Lincoln than any other — because he helped choose Idaho's name when he signed an order making it a territory in 1863.

"More than any other state, Idaho is related to Abraham Lincoln," argued David Leroy, chairman of the Idaho Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission. "That sounds astounding, I suppose, if you're from Kentucky, Indiana or Illinois. But we think we have a pretty good claim."

Western states, which like their older sisters have state panels marking the event, insist that the 16th president played a vital role in the region's development by preventing the expansion of slavery, authorizing the Transcontinental Railroad and signing the 1863 Homestead Act.

"Lincoln had an enormous impact in the West — even though he never stepped foot in what are now the mountain West and far West states," said Syd Nathans, a chairman of Colorado's Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission.

In 1860, Lincoln defeated Democrat Stephen A. Douglas, who advocated "popular sovereignty" in which Western states could decide for themselves whether to allow slave labor. Lincoln's presidential victory assured there would be no formal expansion of slavery into the far West.

West did have Civil War role
After war broke out, the West was forged by the conflict thousands of miles away. Gold from California and Colorado, and silver from Nevada, bankrolled the Union's efforts. In Hawaii, sugar cane plantations replaced a commercial whaling industry as whaling ships were diverted to the fight and northerners looked for a non-Confederate sugar supply.

Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Act, which led to the completion of the nation's first Transcontinental Railroad at Promontory, Utah, in 1869; the Homestead Act, which ultimately opened 1.6 million homesteads in the West; and the Morrill Land Grant Colleges Act, setting up public land-grant universities such as the first University of California in Berkeley.

Lincoln appointed Idaho's first territorial governor and signed off on the name "Idaho," thought at the time to come from a Shoshone Indian word meaning "gem of the mountains." Historians now say the name has no such origin and was simply made up by a lobbyist, a claim known as the "Idahoax."

Idaho schoolchildren recently collected 300,000 pennies to help refurbish and relocate a Lincoln statue to a park in front of the state Capitol.

"You would think it might be more difficult to observe and revere Lincoln in the very far West than in those 25 states plus the District of Columbia that Lincoln visited in his life. That is simply not true," Leroy said.

Hawaii showcases letter
In California, the Lincoln Memorial Shrine in Redlands plans to screen films and hold sessions on how Lincoln has been portrayed in American cinema over the decades.

Hawaii plans to show off an 1862 letter in the state archives written from Lincoln to King Kamehameha V expressing condolences for the death of the Hawaiian monarch's brother.

Oregon is reminding citizens that President Zachary Taylor offered Lincoln an appointment as territorial governor of Oregon in 1849 but that Lincoln turned it down. Several states, including Colorado, are planning essay contests asking students to draw lessons from Lincoln's life.

"We're talking about a man whose life is such an important part of the national story, of American history," said Robert Buss, director of Hawaii's Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission. "As soon as the Civil War happened, things started immediately happening in Hawaii, and all over the West. It was a major shaper of things to come."